Saturday, April 05, 2014

Pro forma

Having created a fair number of forms, surveys, applications, etc., over the years, I know full well how easy it is to think that something is perfectly clear, obvious, and easy...and to be quite wrong.

This past week I had the interesting experience of filling out a form whose designers needed to do some additional thinking before they put it online. (Hint: Ask someone who is not involved in the project have a go at filling out the application. Other hint: One size does not fit all.) Some of the more blatant problems:

• It asks me for employment information. No problem. Except this is the 21st Century, and I know for a fact that I am not the only person in these United States who has more than one employer. I’m scheduled for 20 hours at each, so one is not “job ” and the other one “other job. ” The application’s designers clearly never planned for the possibility. Fields for, say, First Employer and Second Employer (if Applicable)—and maybe even a third employer, given the current state of the economy—would not be out of line.

• It asks for present landlord/mortgage holder. I am happy to report that there isn’t one, so I put down None, and the same thing in the box asking for the rent amount. But upon my sending the form, it bounced back and insisted I had to enter a telephone number for the nonexistent mortgage holder. Fail.

• It asks for the same mortgage information for my previous domicile. Sorry, I have almost no recollection about a mortgage that we paid off 20 years ago. Including the mortgage holder’s telephone number.

• It asks if I’ve ever been convicted of a felony or misdemeanor. Fair enough. Except the question is followed by a checkbox, a single checkbox with no label next to it! (See below.) Is it a Yes box, or is it a No box? It kinda makes a difference, guys! Having no use for pigs in pokes, I left the box unchecked and, in the text field below it, which was there to explain a Yes vote, said that I had never been convicted of anything but, since there was no label next to the single checkbox, I wasn’t going to check it. Helpful Hint: If you’re asking a yes-or-no question, provide a means for people to indicate yes or no.

• Above the Submit button, it says “I hereby sign and accept these conditions. ” I maintain that the statement implies that pressing the Submit button indicates that I am, you know, signing and accepting the specified conditions. But no. An error box comes up to inform me that I must accept the conditions. Um, isn’t that what I just did? Well, no...for, as you can see below, there is a small, faint, unlabeled checkbox waaaaay off to the right of the statement (and, for that matter, the Submit button), which, apparently, must be checked. And the existence of which makes the “I hereby sign... ” statement inaccurate. There should be an “accept ” statement, with the checkbox right next to it, and then a statement above the button to the effect of, “Click the Submit button to electronically sign and submit the application. ”

• Having finally divined everything the form’s designers were trying to communicate, I was rewarded with a screen that included a button that said, “Click Here to download a copy of your application. ” Nice. Only it didn’t. It opened a PDF copy in a new tab, which is fine, but it didn’t “download ” it. Which also is fine—I’ve been on the scene long enough to know that I need only save the PDF from my browser...but I’ve also been on the scene long enough to know that there are plenty of people on this planet who would not know that. They would accept the button’s label at its word—“Click Here to download a copy of your application ”—and somehow think that by clicking here they were downloading a copy of their application. Clear instructions would be helpful: “Click here for a copy of your application, which you can save to your computer. ” Too long for the button, but placed above the button, it would be helpful to a fair number of people.

In that spirit of helpfulness, I plan to pass along these observations and suggestions to the company in question. After the application’s been improved, that is.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

A Pain in the S

For the life of me, I cannot figure out why this is such a problem for so many people…including the nice folks at Publishers Clearing House, who this morning sent me this e-mail (but, to date, none of the money that they insist someone in my ZIP Code and/or with my initials is guaranteed to win):

You would not believe (or perhaps you would; how on earth should I know?) how often the plural of my last name – indeed, any word ending in s – is mangled. Sometimes it’s rendered as PCH did (just slam another s on it!), sometimes the plural formation is ignored entirely (and my wife and I receive invitations addressed to The Reynolds), and sometimes – most of the time – the good ol’ apostrophe-s is brought in (forming a possessive, not a plural).

And yet it’s so easy:
One Reynolds.
Two Reynoldses.
One Jones.
Two Joneses.
One Hopkins.
Two Hopkinses.

(When my children were little, we had a picture book called Too Many Hopkins. About a family of rabbits named Hopkins. I cringed every time I looked at the title. Alarmingly, it was published by a Major New York Publishing House. Indeed, a Major New York Publishing House that published a couple of my own books.)

I am equally perplexed by the difficulty people have in forming possessives of nouns ending in s. Again, it’s all so simple.
The ball belongs to Jones.
It’s Jones’s ball.

I am willing to accept Jones’ in the above example, partly because we’ve (many of us) bee brought up on newspapers that use that style, primarily to save space, and partly because some style and usage guides do propose bizarre gyrations for forming the possessive of monosyllabic proper nouns; I worked with an editor, back in the day, who insisted that the possessive of a one-syllable name gets only the apostrophe – Jones’ – but a multi-syllable name gets apostrophe-s – Reynolds’s. That never made any sense to me, and the style manual that our office used recommended apostrophe-s in all case…except biblical and Hellenic names. Thus, Moses’ staff, Zeus’ head, Jesus’ disciples, and so on.

So some confusion is understandable.

But I will never understand the bizarre impulse to stick an apostrophe in front of every end-of-word s. The Reynold’s House is just plain wrong. If the family living there is named Reynolds, it would be The Reynoldses’ House (plural possessive). If the family living there is named Reynold (which I’ve only ever seen as a given name, not a surname, but who knows), it would be The Reynolds’ House (Reynolds being the plural, Reynolds’ being the plural possessive). Under no circumstances would it be The Reynold’s House.

(If it was the house of my real-life friend whose first name is Reynold, it would be Reynold’s House.)

Yes, it requires a moment’s thought. But it’s not at all tricky – certainly not tricky enough to justify the idiotic response given by a fellow member of a panel I was on at a writers conference some years ago: In response to a stupid question about forming plurals and possessives of names ending in s, the fellow panelist stupidly answered that she always avoided giving characters names that end in s, so as to, you know, not have to think too much.

And, yes, I know – there’s no such thing as a stupid question. Just stupid people.

Lenten Thoughts

Ash Wednesday invariably pulls me back to that childhood meme of “giving _____ up for Lent,” which blank was almost invariably filled by a type of candy or other small treat. Why God should care whether or not I’m eating Baby Ruth bars during the next 40 days is something that was never explained, or explained well. The best we ever got fell along the lines of, “Jesus suffered and died for you on the cross. The least you can do is give up Baby Ruths till Easter.” When, of course, a sugar coma would ensue, courtesy of the Easter Bunny.

In my college days, the Campus Ministry folks proffered an interesting notion: Take something on for Lent, rather than give something up. I learned that this was rooted in Catholic social-justice theology and was a positive, progressive outcome of Second Vatican Council reforms. (Which, even then, forces were working to undo, but that’s another story for another day.) That was, to me, a more meaningful attitude. A common suggestion on campus was to forgo (or reduce) lunch, and donate the money that would otherwise have been spent to hunger-fighting causes. That had the satisfying effect of both fulfilling the “giving up” tradition and giving one the sense that by so doing he was actually doing something positive for the good of someone else. Jesus, after all, exhorted his followers to feed the hungry; he did not insist they forswear M&Ms for six weeks.

Over the decades since then, I sometimes take on something for Lent (in more recent years, a spiritual activity or exercise); I sometimes give up something (one falls back on these dietary angles at such times); and, more often, I do not much of anything at all.

Except, apparently, to give some thought to the matter.

Some years ago, working in the office of a religious organization, I had determined to give up between-meal eating for the duration. Certainly I did not announce that practice, nor in any way call attention to it. But when a co-worker inquired on my passing on a plate of cookies that was passed around at coffee break, I ’fessed up. It was Lent, after all – confessing seemed de rigueur.

And I was mocked.

My co-worker, a pastor, smugly informed me that Jesus’ dying on the cross was the ultimate sacrifice, and that my activity was therefore meaningless. (One notes how frequently “religious” people’s knee-jerk response to other people’s ideas or beliefs is ridicule. One wonders about the solidity of a “believer” who must armor him- or herself with snarkiness. Further, one wonders how many converts are won by sarcasm. Again, questions for another day.) I pointed out that my “sacrifice” was nothing at all, rather the practice was designed to focus my attention on what, after all, I’m told the season is all about, viz., the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus…the same reason, I assume, that my co-worker was given to wear a rather noticeable cross at all times.

The response, of course, was more snark, at which I dropped it. “Never try to teach a pig to sing,” my father often advised me. “It wastes your time, and it annoys the pig.”

At about that same time, a time in which I still practiced Catholicism, I was at mass on the first Sunday in Lent, during which, to my disgust, the celebrant decided it would be a good idea to mock those who choose to “take on” during Lent, rather than “give up” something – food, of course. “And if you’re like me,” he pronounced, patting his well-rounded abdomen, “you could stand to lose a couple of pounds.” No argument…but a good job of missing the point. To “give up” in order to derive a benefit – I’m going to give up chocolates for Lent so I’ll look good in my new duds on Easter Sunday – trashes any notion of sacrifice (which is the point the priest thought he was making: you have to give something up, because Lent is about sacrifice); trashes any notion of focusing the attention on that which Lent purports to commemorate; and pretty much makes a mockery of the season entirely. I came away thinking that, for that gentleman, it was merely the practice for its own sake, without any kind of spiritual or theological underpinning. And what, then, is the point?

These days, as indicated, I am less inclined to “do” anything for Lent, except for some introspection and other thought exercises. But I do value the season (agnostic though I may be) for the reasons touched on above – the opportunity to place oneself in the context of the mythos and speculate on the meaning of it, to focus on something beyond oneself, even to – yes – take on something that might prove to be of benefit to someone else, however small that benefit may be.

And I think we can do without the snarkiness and mockery. That’s always been one of the less-endearing traits of  “religious” people.